Thursday, July 23, 2009

Within the Realm of Possibility

Cassiano Ricardo (trans. Barbara Howes)

Friends, I sang as a bird sings
at daybreak. In full agreement
with one single world.
But how could one live in a world
where things had a single name?

Then, I made up words.
And words perched, warbling, on the head
of objects.

Reality, thus, came to have
as many heads as words.

And when I tried to express sadness and joy
words settled upon me, obedient
to my slightest lyrical gesture.

Now I must be mute.
I am sincere only when I am silent.

So, only when I am silent
do they settle upon me—words—
a flock of birds in a tree
at nightfall.

Though language always exists in tension with what is unspeakable, poetry and psychoanalysis concern themselves essentially with what thrives within this tension, centrally the possibly-spoken. Within this realm, meanings press toward and against language, the essential (soul, unconscious, spirit-nature, etc.) a trickster which regards speaking with appropriate wariness.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Goodbye, then, to the third-year candidates who took my seminar on psychoanalytic writing at SFCP this spring. It was a pleasure working with you.

Atlantis—A Lost Sonnet
Eavan Boland

How on earth did it happen, I used to wonder
that a whole city—arches, pillars, colonnades,
not to mention vehicles and animals—had all
one fine day gone under?

I mean, I said to myself, the world was small then.
Surely a great city must have been missed?
I miss our old city—

white pepper, white pudding, you and I meeting
under fanlights and low skies to go home in it. Maybe
what really happened is

this: the old fable-makers searched hard for a word
to convey that what is gone is gone forever and
never found it. And so, in the best traditions of

where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name
and drowned it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Both poetry and psychoanalysis exist as locations for discovery. We may wonder: is there ever discovery without uncovering; uncovering without discovering something new? Consider the elements of both in the following poems:

Facing It
Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

Rae Armantrout

The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
has left something


Did the palo verde
blush yellow
all at once?

Today’s edges
are so sharp

they might cut
anything that moved.


The way a lost

will come back

You’re not interested
in it now,

in knowing
where it’s been.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Rhythm and Blues

I’ve always been awed (no, at first, I was a little afraid) by the capacity of blues music to contain a complex of intense affects in such a way that the listener is worried and then rendered better able to bear the difficulties of being alive and aware. The music reminds me that any effective insight into (or, sight in) human experience registers finally at the level of emotion. You’ve got to feel it way down to the depths of your soul.

Here’s a wonderful poem by the poet Jericho Brown (whom I had the honor of teaching in a summer poetry workshop some years ago), from his first book, Please:

Track 1: Lush Life

The woman with the microphone sings to hurt you,
To see you shake your head. The mic may as well
Be a leather belt. You drive to the center of town
To be whipped by a woman’s voice. You can’t tell
The difference between a leather belt and a lover’s
Tongue. A lover’s tongue might call you bitch,
A term of endearment where you come from, a kind
Of compliment preceded by the word sing
in certain nightclubs. A lush little tongue
You have: you can yell, Sing bitch, and, I love you,
With a shot of Patron at the end of each phrase
From the same barstool every Saturday night, but you can’t
Remember your father’s leather belt without shaking
Your head. That’s what satisfies her, the woman
With the microphone. She does not mean to entertain
You, and neither do I. Speak to me in a lover’s tongue—
Call me your bitch, and I’ll sing the whole night long.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Poetry & Psychoanalysis Events

Two new events in the Poetry & Psychoanalysis interview series have been scheduled.

Cole Swensen will be interviewed by Alice Jones on Saturday, March 21 from 2.30-4; and C. Dale Young will be interviewed by Susan Kolodny on Sunday, April 26 from 3.30-5. Both events will be held in the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis auditorium, 2340 Jackson Street, 4th floor, San Francisco, CA. 415.563.5815.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Learning to Listen

I had the wonderful experience earlier this week of being a visiting poet at Santa Clara University. It was an enlivening experience, partly because it gave me a chance to reflect on my dual roles as poet and psychotherapist; but it was also enlivening because the students I encountered were such enthusiastic listeners. Twice during interviews, I was asked about the process of listening, especially how I think it is people become better listeners. I’ve tended to answer this question by referring to passive listening—noting the relation of sounds to silence, and the importance of becoming still enough (sometimes, also, brave enough) to recognize what sounds from the silence one has come to appreciate. But I’ve been remiss in not emphasizing also that we listen to what sounds in contrast to what else sounds—that listening is in many ways an active process wherein we turn attention away from the myriad of other sounds we can perceive (we listen to only a fraction of what we could hear), and we construe in some fashion particular sounds we have turned attention toward. And, as I have appreciated by way of years of education and experience—clinical and literary—we hear, but we learn to listen.

This was also brought to mind by an experience in a poetry reading group recently when we were discussed a poem by Brenda Hillman titled, “Phone Booth” (appearing originally in The New Yorker and reprinted in the 2008 Best American Poetry.) The poem is presented on the page in two columns of equal length side by side. One can read it best by reading down the left side first, and then the right; but two of us also tried reading the columns simultaneously. The effect was fascinating--both of us were attentive to the heightened effort involved in reading and comprehending our respective columns; and we each noticed how much more attentive we were to the sounds of a passing car or a door closing outside the office. The poem enacts something of the experience of carrying on a conversation while in a telephone booth—the focused attention to the other’s voice, and to our own—as well as the psychological phone booth we now create in using cellphones (such that we become hyper-attentive largely to the voice on the other end of the “line”.) By emphasizing passive listening (and the potential interferences with being able to hear what sounds from silence), I’d put in the background the remarkable screening we do during listening to keep ourselves from being distracted. And these days, to my mind, that is the more significant challenge.